The history of international sanctions has little to be proud of. From the pre-WWII US sanctions on Japan to more modern examples like Sudan, Iran and Iraq, there are no solid examples of sanctions achieving their stated goals, and myriad examples of them creating new problems. From the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis throughout the Clinton years to the medicine shortages in Iran today, sanctions have a grim history.
Yet the US and France are still talking up new sanctions on Syria, America’s Congress is even pushing to impose more sanctions on Iran, and indeed hardly a week goes by when the US doesn’t declare some new terms on Iran sanctions.
North Korea is more of an international pariah than ever because of sanctions, and the US has just announced its intentions of maintaining sanctions against Zimbabwe in displeasure over the results of that nation’s most recent election. In spite of their long, shameful history, sanctions are still the go-to response for the West.
On the one hand, it’s understandable. In the post-Soviet era of global commerce, trade is essential, and economic sanctions are as deadly as many wars. While the true cost of the US occupation of Iraq may never be fully known, the death toll of the decade of sanctions leading up to the decade of occupation was nearly as deadly, and the toll was even more skewed toward innocent civilians.
And even after a nearly decade-long occupation, those Iraq sanctions are only mostly lifted, with Iraq still trying to get the UN to lift the last vestiges of sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait. Any notion of punishing the Saddam Hussein government seems particularly absurd now, a decade after his ouster and seven years after his death, but sanctions have a macabre momentum of their own.
The US, ever the fan of unilateral action, has imposed sanctions on no less than 17 foreign nations, with sanctions targeted at organisations covering dozens of others. Cuba’s sanctions stand the longest, dating back to 1962 and with little to show for it except for a black market for Cuban cigars in the US.
The sanctions policy, instead of imposing positive change, is designed to weaken everyone it touches, and leaves a targeted government with an increasingly desperate population, which has to turn more and more to them for basic survival.
For the aggressor, sanctions are a measure short of military action, cheaper and less overtly messy. Yet they are, at their core, a form of collective punishment, fraught with all the same moral and practical problems, and a history of overwhelming failure.
The arguments in favour of sanctions come in two forms. The first, common when discussing new sanctions on Iran, is that they weaken the targeted government economically and diplomatically and pressure it to comply.
There is certainly no argument to be made that the anti-Iran sanctions have not harmed the Iranian government’s finances, they have brought trade in this nation of 75 million people to a grinding halt, fueling inflation and unemployment.
Which is where the second argument often comes in. Used most commonly in defending the Iraq sanctions, the argument there is that by imposing collective punishment on the entire population, the international community is pressuring the population to “rise up” and impose the changes sought.
No good argument
And it’s at this point that both arguments clearly begin to crumble, as clearly, none in a targeted nation are nearly so hurt by “biting” sanctions than the private citizens. The poorest and the least politically well-connected are least able to weather the storm, and less able to effect change.
Sanctions against Iran’s banks have kept individual Iranian citizens from importing medicines from abroad, but have proven ineffective in keeping those self-same banks from buying up prime real estate in Manhattan, or helping well-connected officials and state-backed companies bypass the normal channels of commerce.
It is par for the course, then, that US sanctions, nominally aimed at forcing the Iranian government into implementing reforms, recently forced a US web host to take down the webpage of Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist politician that is under house arrest in Iran.
We see the same problem in Zimbabwe, another favorite Western target for sanctions, as opposition groups complain that the sanctions were biting them worse than the Mugabe government, and note that the government regularly blames its shortcomings on those sanctions.
Zimbabwe just went through another dubious election, reflecting the absurdity of the international community expecting that those sanctions could either coerce good behaviour out of bad people, or could somehow provoke the downtrodden locals, all the more downtrodden because of the sanctions, to do their dirty work for them. It just doesn’t work that way.
The sanctions policy, instead of imposing positive change, is designed to weaken everyone it touches, and leaves a targeted government with an increasingly desperate population, which has to turn more and more to them for basic survival. In the end, it may weaken their hand internationally, it may soften them up for a military occupation, but it plainly entrenches them in power in the meantime.
There are no great counter-examples of sanctions working, and the history of sanctions is one of failures and humanitarian calamities. Instead of a diplomatic measure short of war, it is the first step of a cruel, open-ended war of attrition, and a tactic that overtly targets civilians in a manner that few nations would dare attempt any other way. Sanctions are a powerful weapon, but also an unconscionable, counterproductive one.
The great sanctions experiment of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a disastrous failure, and must be abandoned outright, both on humanitarian grounds as well as a rational measure of its impracticality. Sanctions simply don’t work.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.